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Flickering Feminism


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Flickering Feminism


DAUGHTERS OF CHINA

A grandmother, who grew up during the Japanese occupation (1931-1941), says she has never had any dreams of her own. A mother, who was assigned a job as a saleswoman during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), wishes she had been a soldier. A daughter who is a post-80s only child, a ‘leftover woman’ (by Chinese standards) and a proud burlesque performer.

Three generations of Chinese women talk of childhood, marriage, work and dreams, describing how life has dramatically changed for Chinese women over the course of a century.   

Lu Ye, 31 "I love being on stage,  I love the spotlight. I dream about an international career as a performer."

Lu Ye, 31

"I love being on stage,  I love the spotlight. I dream about an international career as a performer."

Dai Hongfen, 80 "All my dreams were for my children. I never had a dream of my own."

Dai Hongfen, 80

"All my dreams were for my children. I never had a dream of my own."

Xu Xiaoping, 57 "The Cultural Revolution destroyed my dreams. I wish I had had another child."

Xu Xiaoping, 57

"The Cultural Revolution destroyed my dreams. I wish I had had another child."

Obedient daughters, wives, mothers. Concubines and factory workers, migrants and millionaires, students and career women. China has an army of women that have long been silenced or sidelined, if they survived infanticide to tell their tales. But they have broken free from their bound feet to enjoy the new opportunities of globalisation in a country of booming economy.

But are Chinese women truly equal to their male counterparts? Are they engaged in rising up against centuries of a pervasive culture of physical and social female oppression? Experts and activists claim that the gender imbalance is actually widening up and the consequences of sex selection are still evident. Despite endemic discrimination against women pervading all corners of life in China, the answer is no. 

Only a small clique of feminist activists, acting from different sides of the country, seem to be struggling against the female plight. Who are China’s feminists? Where are they? Why are they away from frontlines, fighting for a more equal society? Why aren’t more Chinese women feminists? Why isn’t modern China becoming more feminist? And what are men doing in the meantime?

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Feminism under pressure


Understated and outnumbered

Feminism under pressure


Understated and outnumbered

Understated and outnumbered, China’s feminists move and evolve in hostile environment. They discuss gender equality at universities, at women's NGOs in the big cities, in artistic circles and online, where they spread the word and mobilise other women for the cause. These grassroots NGOs are the most active with campaigners often stepping out into public spaces to raise awareness and fight against discrimination and abuse. In the past couple of years, activists have rallied to "occupy male toilets", have protested against sexual harassment in the subway and against violence on women outside government buildings.

There are no statistics about the number of feminists or the number of feminist activists in China, but most of them are believed to be working or associated to NGOs focused on women and gender issues. China Development Brief, an NGO that runs an online and print publication reporting on China's growing nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, estimates there are roughly between 70 and 100 such NGOs in Mainland China.  

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But the odds are stacked against these few brave women contributing to the civil rights movement. On one hand, China is brewing its rapid development under a triumvirate of entrenched ideals – power, patriarchy and control – that push women (or any dissident voice) away from the game of public influence and political decision-making. On the other hand, feminists lack public support. They are often greeted with smear campaigns and repression in a country ruled by men, and where it can be shameful and even risky to raise a voice against the system. Experts note that systemic discrimination is extremely wide ranging, from the sex ratio to being excluded from China’s power and wealth machine.    

Younger activists believe some small progress is taking place as more people are joining their ranks. Feminists will not stop their fight, which they predict will be long and arduous. They have warned the future for women in the People’s Republic of China doesn’t look bright. 

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Vagina, she wrote


阴道= Yīndào, the Chinese word for vagina literally means "secret tunnel"

Vagina, she wrote


阴道= Yīndào, the Chinese word for vagina literally means "secret tunnel"

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Vagina is a ‘bad’ word in China and saying it out loud was what got Xu Zihua (not her real name) and another 16 of her colleagues in trouble at the beginning of November. The undergraduates from Beijing Foreign Studies Universities (BFSU), one of China’s most prestigious universities, decided to post photographs of themselves holding up messages such as “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom,” to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial 1996 play.

The young women, all aged around 21, posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website similar to Facebook and popular with university students. The photos were shared on other social media websites, including the Chinese Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo and on Youku, China’s leading video sharing platform, and went viral. “We were only promoting our performance, we never thought we’d get that much attention,” explained Xu. But the photos hit a nerve with Chinese internet users and what ensued was a wave of degrading comments online, targeting the girls' looks and their 'deviant sexual morals.' One Internet user on Weibo wrote: "If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores." 

Nobody wants to be called a feminist, otherwise who will want to marry you.
— Xu Zihua, 20

“I am not actually a feminist,” said Xu, surprisingly. The female student attends classes on ‘Gender and Society’ at BFSU and The Vagina Monologues is part of the school curriculum. “To me, feminism is about looking at social events and behaviour from the perspective of gender inequality, and then striving to achieve equality in all aspects in life,” Xu described, nailing the term.

“But I am still learning. Most girls in China don’t really know what feminism is, but they feel discrimination every day, and they desperately want to level things out. Most of them are worried about getting a job after graduating, but I would say some still think that being a housewife is the best solution, given the traditional perception of a woman’s role in society,” Xu noted.

“Nobody wants to be called a feminist, otherwise who will want to marry them,” explained 20-year-old Xu, who studies English language and literature at BFSU. “It’s like the word vagina, people don’t say it the same way they say nose or mouth. Vagina is a dirty, mysterious word,” the student said, pointing out one of the reasons why there are few Chinese feminists. The Vagina Monologues has been performed across China since 2009, though often advertised with the word 'vagina' being censored. But that isn't unique to China. In the U.S., the play is still often referred to in ads as The V Monologues.

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Taking it to the street


Action, attention!

Taking it to the street


Action, attention!

Twenty-six-year old Xiao Meini shaved her hair in August 2012 to protest against gender discrimination in university admission rates, which impose higher scores for female applicants. Xiao and her friends are at the helm of a Guangzhou-based organisation called “Bald Girls”, one of the busiest feminist activist groups in the country. A day later, three other activists shaved their heads and staged the same protest in Beijing. Several days later, a number anonymous men and women also followed their lead, shaved their heads and posted their photos online in a show of support. 

"Hair has symbolic meaning for women, so a bald head represents a complete break with the traditional social female image of a woman," Xiao told Chinese media. Xiao and her friends fulfilled their goal of grabbing attention and were surprised atthe result. "We didn't expect so many strangers to support us. And the media exposure is also beyond our imagination," Xiao noted. "Shaving my head was totally worth it." 

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Xiao and her friends go public regularly in defence of female rights. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, and inappropriate gender ratios in public restrooms have all been on their agenda. Activities like "Bloody Wedding Gowns", "Occupy the Men's Room" and "Just Because I'm Slutty," have been equally meaningful because they generated an interesting discussion, contradictory and dramatic, Xiao told the media.

Xiao’s actions were echoed in Beijing. At the headquarters of the Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO based in Beijing, Xiong Jing organised similar protests with people shaving their heads and at public restrooms. “We are in contact with other feminist organisations, we share the same belief that public action is an important way to get people’s attention,” said the 25-year-old project manager.

Xiong estimates there are about 100 active feminists in Beijing and other cells are popping up in China’s provincial capitals like Xi'an, Wuhan and Chengdu. 

First of all, we have very limited space for NGO building and social forces are very dispersed. Secondly, gender and feminist perspective is almost invisible in the mainstream media. In a way, Gender Watch plays a double role in engaging with public discourse and feminist community building. Through social media, NGO activists and feminists are able to form circle and engage in public debate, even though the discussion seldom enter the public sphere. When we talk about the development of woman movement in China we have to address this context.
— Lu Ping, director of the NGO Woman Media Watch Network (WMWN) and founder of weekly e-newsletter Gender Watch. WMWN was established in 1996 in response to the Beijing Woman's forum action plan to engage with the mainstream media.
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China Development Brief, an online and print publication reporting on China's growing nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, estimates there are about 70 registered NGOs in Beijing specializing in gender equality and women's rights. Most of these associations have no more than 10 full-time staff and struggle for financial support. 

Female centres for psychological and legal counselling, and those who advocate for migrant workers' rights are also on this list, with representatives in other cities such as Shenzhen and Kunming.

The Internet has opened up a new, low-budget platform to disseminate their message. “We write articles and reports, prepare lectures and workshops, and we also provide psychological consultation. Much of our tasks are now focused on new media, we run two websites [www.genderwatch.cn and www.china-gad.org], microblogs and e-paper," Xiong said. "Then we take to the streets to get people’s attention. More people have been joining us lately because they find us online. More people become aware of feminism and female plights when they see our actions in the public sphere,” Xiong noted.   

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Virtual force


Freedom and debate

Virtual force


Freedom and debate

On November 25, which marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Bcome stepped on the Beijing subway Line 13 singing ‘Do You Hear the Women Sing’, a rendition of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’, one of the main and most recognisable songs from the musical Les Misérables and an anthem to freedom.

In order to raise awareness, the activists also distributed leaflets as they sang among commuters on the subway with titles such as “The ABCs of Feminism”, “20 Misconceptions about sexual violence" and “Resist verbal abuse." The videos were posted online.

As with most dissident voices in China, feminists have also found their way onto the Internet to pass on their message and mobilise other women for the feminist cause. With the main media controlled by the government and the market, feminists are marginalised and lack resources to access a wider stage where their voices can be heard.

Feminist activists sing in the subway to raise awareness for the elimination of violence against women in Beijing, on Nov. 25, 2013.

“The most vibrant feminist organisations and female NGOs are currently very active online. They’re an online movement of feminist critique,” noted Wang Zheng, talking of the clusters in Beijing and Guangzhou.

Platforms like Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblog, and video-sharing website Youku, are the main window to feminist actions scattered around the vast country.   

Women’s Voice, which is run by the Media Monitor for Women Network, has one of the most influential Weibo on gender issues with over 25,000followers. The page is covered with general news concerning women, publications and reports as well as useful female-related links. Their channel on Youku, which is called FeminisTV, also has over 200,000 followers.

Beijing-based feminist group Bcome and Media Monitor for Women Network are two associations on the front line of online feminist activism. They publish useful information and newsletters online, they collect signatures and organise offline activities such as panel discussions, performances and even protests.

Bcome performs at Zajia Lab in Beijing

Bcome performs at Zajia Lab in Beijing

Bcome was also behind the performance of The Vagina Monologues by BFSU students. The organisers translated the play from the English script, took parts from past Mandarin versions, and created original scenes through a series of workshops they ran last year. At each workshop, they voted on the topic they wanted to stage, noted down their own experiences, and gave key words to the scriptwriters. "We wanted to localise the play as much as possible, so we added issues such as the obsession and anxiety over virginity," explains Ai Ke, one of the organisers. 

After the script was ready, Bcome's committee organised shows at several universities around town, at Beijing's LGBT centre, at culture cafes, and at an art space where they performed to an audience of 400. They also performed it for a community of migrant sex workers ("This helped us better understand them and write a scene about their lives"). “The play is new, fresh and attention-grabbing," Ai Ke added. "It's not just a play, it's a tool for spreading feminism, a method for public education."

Scholars are somewhat divided as to the role of the Internet as a torch for the feminist movement. “There is no question that this is a platform for individual women to exchange ideas and express their desires for a better life but at the same time, we can see that through excessive government monitoring, the Internet is not providing a platform for real organised opposition that actually leads to meaningful social change,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a sociology PhD candidate at Tsinghua University researching on 'leftover women' (see page Leftover and left behind), noting the topic is highly debatable.

Living in the US and traveling to China every year, it is online that Wang Zheng keeps in close contact with the feminists on the ground while she is away. Wang as a history and women's studies professor at the University of Michigan. “These are strong, clear minded women who not only produce online mobilisation, they are also doing something very important which is to exert pressure on the ACWF,” said Wang, explaining they have found ways to circumvent official control. “The authorities watch them as they do with everybody who wants to organise group activities. But everybody knows about this, so we’ve found ways to go into the public sphere without causing very much political trouble,” the professor explained.

Some of the girls had their parents calling and shouting at them on the phone: Why do I have a daughter like you? You are so deviant! My boyfriend’s parents called him to ask what was wrong with me?
— Xu Zihua

Using email listings and organising timely demonstrations are two such strategies. “These associations maintain their websites but for example, the newsletter by the  is circulated only by email to a group of subscribers. Whenever they want to stage a protest in public space, they wake up very early. They go out, perform their protest by shouting slogans in front of a government building film it and they get out of there before the police shows up. Then they publish the video online,” said Wang. 

Bcome page on Sina Weibo, China's biggest microblogging service.

Bcome page on Sina Weibo, China's biggest microblogging service.

Despite a relative level of mobilisation allowed by the virtual sphere, experts also point out the dangers of the Internet. In a presentation entitled “Impact of Internet on Chinese Women's Lives From a Gender Perspective,” Zhang Jian, professor of women’s studies at China’s Women University in Beijing talks of the dual impact of the Internet on women. It enlarges women’s social practice field, including creating far more occupational chances and much wider living space, because of its digitalisation, online behaviour and freedom. But it can also commercialises women in a bad way and allow them to be easily harmed in the conflict between virtual and social reality.”

The misogynistic backlash against the BFSU student’s project “My Vagina Says” has proven that the online audience can also be a vigilante mob that reacts heavily against bolder demonstrations of female sexuality. When the photos went viral, they were first received with a wave of woman-hating comments targeting the girls' looks and sexuality. "Seeing their faces, I've lost all interests in their vaginas" said one netizen nicknamed @Taoist_Mua; another wrote "These ignorant grandstanding tarts" @Baohulvsejiayuan; “Wouldn’t having an orgasm be what they want the most?" asked @shuxingxingdebide. Many people retorted their action had nothing to do with female empowerment or seeking gender equality. Then the problem spilled out of cyberspace while, according to some of the girls, there were some furious parents calling the university to complain. “Some of the girls had their parents calling and shouting at them on the phone: Why do I have a daughter like you? You are so deviant! My boyfriend’s parents called him to ask what was wrong with me?” recalled Xu Zihua.

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Unfortunately, the list of nasty comments outweighed messages of support, setting out a campaign of painful shame for these girls. Western feminists and activists have coined the term "slut-shaming" to describe group attacks on women that take place both online and offline and prevent women from being full and active participants in the digital world. Thanks to the shield of anonymity covering the online world, it is not possible to know how many insults actually came from men or women.

New terms, campaigns and commentary that are derogatory to women are not uncommon. Around March and April 2013, a new word Chinese word emerged on the Internet: the green tea bitch (绿茶婊). As reported by Whats on Weibo, a website about trending topics on China’s biggest microblog site, netizens joined in a collective effort to formulate a suitable definition of what a ‘green tea bitch’ actually is. As a result, a short essay was composed – containing twenty-four different characteristics. 

The topic summary review on Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging website, described the term as follows: " (...) It particularly refers to sluts who pretend to be very innocent, with beautiful long hair and a clean face. It seems as if she is not wearing any makeup, but she secretly does. It appears as if she is harmless and has been hurt herself, like she has experienced so much pain. Actually she is a woman who is more ambitious than any other.” As the new topic became trendy, internet users compiled lists of their own definitions of the term.

The topic summary review on Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging website, described the term as follows: " (...) It particularly refers to sluts who pretend to be very innocent, with beautiful long hair and a clean face. It seems as if she is not wearing any makeup, but she secretly does. It appears as if she is harmless and has been hurt herself, like she has experienced so much pain. Actually she is a woman who is more ambitious than any other.” As the new topic became trendy, internet users compiled lists of their own definitions of the term.

The Internet and microblogs are a double-edged sword, and it was quite clear that netizens are simultaneously keen on advocating for the general good, taking a peak at soft-pornography and policing the boundaries of gender behaviour.

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Unexpected circles


LGBT groups and 'Lean In' join the cause

Unexpected circles


LGBT groups and 'Lean In' join the cause

It took Hu Yijin (not her real name) 69 years to discover she was a lesbian; she had been married for 45 years when she finally found out what was wrong with her marriage and her life: she was into women.   

“She was very confused about herself when she found us through a friend,” explained Anchor, founder and director of the Beijing Lesbian Center, with headquarters in the Chinese capital. “Under pressure from her parents, Hu got married at a young age, although she had never liked men. She focused on her career throughout her life. Singing was her escape, the way she found to express her sorrow. Hu had never been in love,” Anchor kept on telling the unfortunate story that is common to so many Chinese lala – the informal Chinese term for lesbian – who take decades to understand they are not abnormal and are not alone.

“The day Hu called the center, we talked for about six hours. She said she had never spoken so much in her lifetime, and she certainly had never talked about homosexuality before in her life,” recalled Anchor, “she was very grateful for our help. The LGBT center provided Hu with books and materials about homosexuality and invited her to participate in their lala salons, events organised for gay people to share their experiences and meet others with similar experiences. 

Two women, Song and Zheng, celebrate their wedding even though China's law does not recognise same-sex marriage. Courtesy of BLC.

Two women, Song and Zheng, celebrate their wedding even though China's law does not recognise same-sex marriage. Courtesy of BLC.

"Living in such a traditional cultural and social context, it's very difficult for many lesbians, especially from the post-50s, 60s and 70s generations, who have grown up without the experience of bars, to accept the bar culture. This was one of the reasons that motivated BLC to create the lala salons," Anchor explained.   

Hu’s tale has a happy ending. Late in life, she decided she wanted to be free and live her life the way she liked. “She progressively became brave and confident. At 70, she met her current girlfriend and divorced her husband, disregarding others’ opinions. Her girlfriend is 20 years younger than she is, and they have lived happily ever since. But not all lesbians who live in the closet enjoy the same fate as Hu, especially if they live in the countryside, where tradition prevails and expects women to fulfill their role asprocreating housewives.  

“Poverty and local culture lead many lesbians in remote areas of China into a situation of confusion, lack of identification and isolation,” noted Anchor, explaining how these females deal with family and social pressure. “They are lonely. Without LGBT guidance and community support, many of them have been forced into heterosexual marriage. Those who can't cope with the pressure have often chosen to escape marriage by running to other cities or they have committed suicide." According to a survey by Shanghai Jiao Tong University released on December 25, 2013, two out of three adults in China still find homosexuality unacceptable, mainly because it is inconsistent with traditional Chinese values.

According to the leader of the BLC, the lesbian community faces discrimination at various levels: gay women are under pressure to open up and acknowledge their identity to their families; they are required, and often coerced, to get married; they face problems whether they are in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship; they face self-identification issues and discrimination in the workplace. Moreover, lesbians are not entitled to the legal right of marriage or the right of discourse, as materials like books and films about female homosexuality can’t be published publicly.

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Since it was created nine years ago, BLC has conducted seminars and workshops, has organised salons, has welcomed many volunteers and has built a network of branches around the country. “Volunteers from small cities and communities in the countryside have a major role in helping other lesbians gain self-confidence and awareness by actively involving them into LGBT programs in BLC. Very often, these volunteers hope there can be a lesbian center to hold lala salons in their hometown to bring more information and support to local people,” said Anchor. BLC currently relies on about 500 volunteers, but similarly to other NGOs, it survives with only two full-time employees and a permanent force of 20 volunteers. BLC is also in close contact with other LGBT groups and female NGOs, often stepping forward to reclaim female rights.

I think all lesbians are feminists regardless of their awareness of the term feminism. Lesbians don’t obey the rules of sex and gender in traditional society; they don’t believe women can only marry men and be child bearers, support their husband and educate their children, or have sex with men without ever taking pleasure in the joys of sex,” Anchor explained. The BLC leader believes there is no well-established idea of feminism in China, which prevents women from being more vocal about their concerns and more resolute about claiming their rights.

“China emphasises equality between the sexes in a legal sense but in reality, inequality outshines policies and rules, namely in the access to university and employment. Many women have no awareness of social equality and rights, they are used to receiving unequal treatment and don’t question it. Chinese women need to receive feminist education on a wide and deep level to counter thousands of years of deeply rooted patriarchal principles and male chauvinism; it’s the way to increase consciousness of female rights and to teach women to speak out when they’re treated unequally. 

On and offline, members of LGBT groups make another regular presence on the frontlines of feminism activism. “We were very surprised to see so many members of the LGBT community joining our activities,” said Xiong Jing. “They experience marginalization due to their gender but also due to their sexual orientation, so they have experience and are not reluctant to participate in street actions,” said the program manager. 

Messages posted on the wall during a workshop in Nanjing organised by Sinner-B, a Guangzhou-based NGO, that promotes gender equality and LGBT rights from the "feminist perspective."

Messages posted on the wall during a workshop in Nanjing organised by Sinner-B, a Guangzhou-based NGO, that promotes gender equality and LGBT rights from the "feminist perspective."

Deprived of representation at a political level, LGBT groups see cooperation with feminist NGOs as a way to build up some influence. “They’re organised around communities, they have no strength to voice their concerns at a higher level. The NGOs are trying to lobby the representatives, so they join us,” Xiong added. Traveling around the country to do workshops and train women, Professor Wang Zheng noted that LGBT groups currently exist is almost every big city in China. “Lesbians feel discriminated against and many of the ones who have stepped forward are university students. Meantime, young heterosexual women are all so deeply oppressed by the marriage system, that they are more worried about finding a husband,” added Wang Zheng. 

 

Ironically enough, the latest addition to the female lines of defence in Beijing has been inspired by a social media platform that is blocked in mainland China.  The Lean In circles are local chapters of LeanIn.Org, the nonprofit organisation founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to empower all women to achieve their ambitions. Taking the name of Sandberg’s book, these women don’t necessarily define themselves as feminists, they have no ties to local NGOs and focus primarily on female empowerment. 

A clock on the table starts ticking. “So tell us Mei Ling (not her real name), what changed since our last session for you? How did you deal with pending changes at work?” asked the host, facing a group of young women sitting in circle on sofas and on the floor in a cozy apartment at a high-end compound in downtown Beijing. Mei Ling shared how she was about to quit an underpaid job that she loved but where she was not appreciated. She was also pondering on changing her career altogether. 

The session went on with three of the 10 women sharing their issues and receiving insight and advice from the others. “Lean In is platform for women to get together to share whatever issues are affecting them at their work place and social/family sphere. But on the empowerment side, we also reach out for others not necessary within our circle to help people understand that there is this stigma about powerful women due to social stereotypes,” explained 34-year-old Carol Rafferty, who was originally born in Guangdong but was raised in the US.. 

In all Lean In circles, whether from professional or educational backgrounds, members are women in their late 20s and early 30s, mostly college graduates, Chinese and expats working in various fields. “One of us was being told that she was too old to further her career and  thatshe should get married soon otherwise she’d be a leftover woman (shengnu, well-educated woman who is unmarried at 27, visit page Systemic discrimination); the other was ending a relationship as she was working too hard,” said Rafferty, about some of the issues that women bring to the circle. 

The hostess organises sessions based on training materials online. “Firstly, We discuss salary negotiations, as women are usually the ones that take the first offers they get in every job. We train ourselves to be more vocal in asking for more, based on statistics and the market. Secondly, we go through the work-life balance, especially for women who are mothers and have families. Thirdly, we talk about how to find our passion in life, which is more prevalent among university graduates or graduate students who are still seeking a career path,” Rafferty clarified. 

Hong Kong-born Alicia Ye sees the group as a forum and a way for women to carve out time to think strategically about their future. “I never once in my lifetime thought I'd actually join a women's support group, it sounds negative to call it that because we're not crying to each other, it's more about sharing, supporting and helping each other succeed,” said 32-year-old Ye.

Inequality in the workplace and high social expectations for Chinese women based on their gender are the bigger reasons to justify Lean In. “We're not experts so we don't really know if inequality is better or worse than before, but I would say that we're encountering a deficit of time and opportunity in our lives. We all have multiple obligations, some have their own family, others have to take care of our parents, as opposed to our male counterparts who have less such expectations placed upon them. I would say women have much less time to actually think strategically about their future, whether in terms of their career or their personal development," Ye resumed.

Women from Lean In Beijing circle meet Sandberg. Photo courtesy of Lean In Beijing.

Rafferty studied at Yale and Stanford, while Ye studied in Chicago and then France. Lean In is essentially a privileged circle of well-educated, urban females. They recognise Lean In’s limited outreach to women of different communities. “For now, the criticism is certainly fair. For starters you’d need to have access to the materials online as well as books,” said Rafferty, admitting illiterate woman are automatically excluded. “There is huge room for improvement. But I think as we grow in numbers and experience, I really hope that eventually, it will reach the women who really need to find help.”

According to the organisers, the first showcase Lean In event drew in around 70 women, with subsequent initiatives to start professional and university circles. Rafferty estimates that about 500 women in Beijing know of and have participated in Lean In activities. 

The circles draw their energy from the eponymous book written by Sandberg. Even though her book is not blocked in China, Facebook is, and the circles were born as the government launched a strong campaign against rumours and targets activists groups online. “We're not talking about anything politically sensitive in our group sessions. We're really just a group of women getting together to talk about personal issues that we are facing on a daily basis, we're not trying to revolutionise or overthrow anything and we meet at home or university facilities, so I don't think there is going to be a problem,” Ye predicted. Rafferty believes that Lean In’s mission is cross-cultural and promoted positive change: “Whether or not we're directly or indirectly supported by the government, what we're trying to do is very basic. We want to make women happy, have the world support women's development and have more female leaders around the world.”

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Official sisterhood


Powerless women

Official sisterhood


Powerless women

Wu Chunxia was happily married for three years until her husband Li Zhendong (pseudonym used by Chinese media) beat her after an argument. Since that day in 2003, violence escalated at Wu’s home as Li went on smashing things, seizing their three-year-old child and kicking Wu out of the house. Wu’s ordeal was just the beginning.

An ordinary rural village woman, Wu turned to the authorities for help after surviving domestic abuse. Instead, the police detained her after she sought assistance from provincial and central officials in a custody dispute with her ex-husband who was having an affair – “a matter complicated by the man’s cozy relations with local police,” as published in an investigative report by China Youth Daily and an article by Dui Hua, a Chinese Human Rights Journal, that described Wu’s case in detail.

Wu became a “stability-preservation target” in her locality, in Henan Province, after she petitioned about “family and village affairs” in 2004. The husband sued Wu for divorce. “A mediation attempt by the township women’s federation failed. Wu then complained to the village committee all the way up to the provincial women’s federation, all to no avail,” as reported. When Wu decided to go to Beijing to petition the All-China Women's Federation for help with her abusive marriage in April 2008, police intercepted her and she never made it to the capital.

Two helpless women that no female federation was able to help. Wu and Tang have fought against all odds and a corrupt judicial system.

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Left: Wu Chunxia leaves Henan Province High People’s Court. Above: Tang Hui was sentenced to 18 months of reeducation through labor for accusing police of misconduct following her daughter’s kidnapping and rape. 

Source: Photo credit: Han Junjie, China Youth Daily and Sanxiang Metropolis Daily, both via Dai Hua, Human Rights Journal.

Three months later, in July, police plucked Wu from her divorce hearing. “I’ll never forget that day, even after I am dead,” Wu told China Youth Daily. The woman was detained by the police that day and local authorities sentenced her to one year of "re-education through labour" (RTL), the infamous laojiao system that allowed police to punish minor criminals without a trial or any ruling from the judicial system, which has now been abolished following publicity of similar abuses of the system.

Wu was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Xinxiang, Henan, where she was treated as a paranoid schizophrenic for 132 days. Doctors and nurses placed electrodes on her scalp, submitted her to shock-therapy three times a week and forcibly fed her drugs that caused weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the China Youth Daily reported.

"Once you yelled, [that would] prove that you should be deemed a mental patient," Wu told the paper. The RTL system was recently abolished on November 15, 2013, after 56 years of existence.

Wu was released in December 2008 after repeatedly threatening suicide and has since vowed to reinvestigate her case. She has fought back with a series of lawsuits. Authorities eventually revoked both her labour camp sentence and her first detention, but she insisted to take her case to court. In June 2013, Zhoukou's Intermediate Court ordered the psychiatric hospital and neighbourhood officials to pay more than 145,000 yuan (nearly 17,600 euros, $24,000) in civil damages and compensation for forcibly admitting Wu.

On May 6, People's Intermediate Court in Zhoukou ruled that the Zhoukou Police Bureau violated the law by sending Wu to a psychiatric facility. The police bureau filed an appeal 10 days later and Wu is currently awaiting the verdict. “Many of the human rights abuses reported in contemporary China share a common theme: the lengths to which local authorities are willing to go to in order to control people they identify as threats to stability. Many of those who have been targeted are petitioners, often women, seeking redress for what they believe to be unjust administrative or judicial decisions,” China Youth Daily explained in its in-depth exposé.

Wu’s case highlighted the cruelty of forced confinement on the mainland and the ordeal that those wrongly institutionalised face in trying to secure justice.  But it also disclosed what many Chinese women go through when they turn to the authorities for physical and psychological protection, or when they resort to the courts to claim land or marital rights. These women are mostly helpless, fighting against an ineffective justice system, often corrupt, and ruled by men. “Many rural women are helpless against the system when claiming their land rights. The system is basically working against them,” said Li Lixia, Secretary General from Women’s Watch-China, a NGO that protects women’s rights and advocates for gender equality. The association often takes pro bono cases. “Men go to the city for work and women stay behind tending to the land and the family but they simply have no claim to the property. We even try to submit group claims to court. But local committees are ran by men and even if the claims get to court, it is likely the court will only take individual claims,” said Li, who is a lawyer, explaining how this practice plays down the strength of a collective claim.

Wu’s case poses the question: why were China’s provincial women’s federation unable to help Wu and why couldn’t China’s national feminist agency – the All China Women’s Federation – intervene on her behalf?

  Delegates to the 11th National Women's Congress of China (NWCC) sing together at the closing ceremony of the congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 31, 2013. Photo: Women of China/ Zhang Ping

 

Delegates to the 11th National Women's Congress of China (NWCC) sing together at the closing ceremony of the congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 31, 2013. Photo: Women of China/ Zhang Ping

Created in 1949 by the Communist Party to “protect women’s rights and interests,” the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) is the state feminist agency that officially represents and promotes the rights of women. Experts, activists and NGOs state that China’s official female player is also the most inscrutable one, often acting away from the buzz created by petitioners and promoting retrograde values that contribute to keeping women in the backseat of society. Instead of relying on the sisterhood that should have the ear of China’s circles of policy-makers, feminists have little faith in the official agency and some go as far as saying that the federation adversely affects women instead of protecting them.

“The federation is invisible [to us],” said Xiong Jing from Media Monitor for Women Network (MMWN), “we don’t count on them,” the NGO project manager said. “They don’t have much to do with feminism, they’re just a state-affiliated organisation that is marginalised by the government,” said Xiong, noting the ACWF is no longer taken seriously.

The co-founder and creator of the Beijing Lesbian Center (BLC) is one of those who tried to rally support from the federation in defending LGBT rights, to no avail. “The All China Women's Federation claims to be a NGO, but actually is a government institution, another official department,” said Anchor. “The Chinese government doesn’t recognise the rights or interests of homosexual groups, whose related activities, demands and issues are limited to the scope of non-governmental and grassroots associations. The ACWF will not intervene to care and serve the lesbian groups while overstepping the government. We’ve tried to contact them but failed,” added the BLC coordinator.

It was impossible to glean an official position from the federation. One of the delegates refused an interview, claiming that her opinions didn't express those of the federation. Zhu Hong, who works under the ACWF as president of the Jianggan District Women's Federation, accepted an email interview but noted that all opinions were her own.

“Feminism might not be the right word for a women’s movement in China. In my opinion, the women’s movement in China is different from the western concept of feminism, which emerged with the claims to women’s right to vote. In China, we see a movement to emancipate women to get out of the house, take on their own careers and develop themselves,” said Zhu, shying away from the word feminism. “There are some NGOs in the field that advocate for gender equality by organising different activities. However their power is limited. The ACWF is the largest women’s organisation in China that has been striving for gender equality,” confirmed the delegate.

Seemingly stripped of its power to intervene in the behalf of wronged women, without a united voice and wary of the word ‘feminism,’ it comes as no surprise that feminist activist have cut ACWF out of the playing field.

“I'd say there are no feminists in the government; those women have been helped by men and they will abide by the official rules and regulations. We've been told by people who come to our centre that the AWCF not only doesn't help women, it ends up harming them,” observed Lin Lixia, Secretary General of Women's Watch-China, who specialises in women’s legal aid.

Throughout the years, the federation also lost support from within its own ranks. Dissatisfied with the federation’s stance on women’s issues, a number of previous members split from the ACWF and moved on to found NGOs. “In China, most people traditionally think that the ACWF is around to protect female rights, and they do try to a certain extent, but they are under official control; more female NGOs are needed,” said Lin Lixia, Secretary General Women's Watch-China. “Our founder Guo Jianmei used to be with the ACWF,” noted Lin. A lawyer and currently one of the most renowned Chinese feminists, Guo left the ACWF after attending the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1990, where she learned about female NGOs. In 2005, Guo was put forward as nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2010 she received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize with fellow feminist Ai Xiaoming. ACWF would do better without losing inspirational women such as Guo.

Female students participate in a demonstration as part of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, defending women's emancipation against anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism. Source: traditions.culture-china.com

Female students participate in a demonstration as part of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, defending women's emancipation against anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism. Source: traditions.culture-china.com

Born in 1952, historian Wang Zheng grew up in Shanghai under an official mandate of equality, even though the word feminism was not around. "I never experienced discrimination growing up in the big city. Women were equal to men," explained Wang, adding that one must look back in time to understand why the federation lost its seminal grip and support. “The term feminism was not in circulation in China back in the day. People discussed equal rights and equality between men and women. When a large number of urban educated women joined the Communist Party, the topic of women’s liberation became a good term to refer to female inclusion and equal rights,” explained Wang, who teaches History at the University of Michigan. The ACWF was later created by revolutionary women who joined the ranks of the Party in the 1930s, mostly during the Japanese invasion, and the 1940s.

When the Communist Party ascended to power, these women became power holders. “They became known as state feminists and the advocates of socialist state feminism. In fulfilling the Party’s task of gender equality these women were trying to push for their female interests. These women were instrumental in promoting the equal rights agenda and pushing for reform,” underlined the professor, praising them for the first marriage law promulgated by the state in the 50s, declaring that marriages should be based on equal rights for both sexes and on the free choice of partners. Progressive at the time, the new marriage law also determined the ban on polygamy and the tradition of taking concubines, the ban on child marriages and the freedom of divorce.

During Mao’s era, the celebration of women was thus centralised and despite the public discourse on gender equality, the federation faced many obstacles moving in a male-dominated world. “When anti-Mao movements began, younger feminists turned against the All China Women’s Federation too, which was part of the state; it was their way of resisting an authoritarian state,” Wang said. That’s how the word feminism entered China, as a way to resist the authoritarian control by the state. “But these women’s concern was to go against a patriarchal society on a daily basis; they had no historical knowledge about the ACWF. The ACWF spend its first two decades fighting, never wrote anything down. There is a lack of women’s studies; there is no institutionalised knowledge about the progress of a women’s movement and feminism in China, which makes it difficult to pass on the cause to younger generations.

Wang lamented that the generation of women who fought for the creation of a female state agency is no longer alive or has left the federation to work independently. “There isn’t a new generation of revolutionaries to take their place. China’s logic of development and value system has changed drastically from collective struggle to praising the individual. Profoundly affected by capitalism consumerism, life has improved in many ways, but all it had to do with a collective mentality was strongly criticized. Therefore, younger generations grew up without an idea of striving for the common good and are not politically minded. Most young women envision their dreams and evaluate their happiness based on the amount of goods they can buy; they’re more worried about climbing the social ladder and nailing a rich husband than fighting for female rights.” Wang agrees with Lin, describing the delegates of ACWF as bureaucrats, saying the small number of feminists in the ACWF can’t fight against the tide. “Most of those women were placed at the federation by men, they will abide by what China’s male-dominated government says, and china’s Communist Party is more worried about GDP rates than people’s rights” said Wang.

family systemic discrimination.png

Systemic discrimination


From birth to adulthood

Systemic discrimination


From birth to adulthood

 “The birth of a boy is welcomed with shouts of joy and firecrackers,

but when a girl is born, the neighbours say nothing.”

Chinese saying

When Zhao Ping was born, her grandmother was furious. “She told my father that he should get rid of me, that he should kill me,” said the 26-year-old tutor. Until today, Zhao doesn’t know where her grandmother lived. “I just know it was close to Baoding, Hebei Province, where lots of girls were killed at birth. My mother never wanted me to go there because my grandmother never liked me,” she recalled.  

Zhao Ping survived to tell her tale, but according to official statistics released by the country's health ministry in March, China has performed an estimated 336 million abortions over the past four decades as part of its enforced family planning policy, also known as one-child policy. “I remember one of my female colleagues at school was named Pandi (盼弟, Anticipated Brother) because her parents wanted a boy instead of a girl,” Zhao said. Female infanticide is explained by a persistent preference for male heirs in China, who are more likely to find a well-paid job, allowing them to maintain the parents in old age, and carry on the family name.

Kang Kang, the attractive female student featured in the homepage of Renmin University of China, one of the country's top universities, promoting the institution, wouldn't be able to become a geologist or a tunnel engineer if she wanted to. China's education ministry bans women from studying a variety of subjects across China, from navigation to mining. The website of the university crashed in June after it had an unprecedented number of visitors, who allegedly logged in to check out Kang Kang's photos. Many suspect the pictures are one of the ways the university uses to attract new students, the South China Morning Post reported.

Kang Kang, the attractive female student featured in the homepage of Renmin University of China, one of the country's top universities, promoting the institution, wouldn't be able to become a geologist or a tunnel engineer if she wanted to. China's education ministry bans women from studying a variety of subjects across China, from navigation to mining. The website of the university crashed in June after it had an unprecedented number of visitors, who allegedly logged in to check out Kang Kang's photos. Many suspect the pictures are one of the ways the university uses to attract new students, the South China Morning Post reported.

"My dream was to be a nuclear engineer," recalled Zhu Hua, one of the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) students who participated in the project "My Vagina Says" in November. The 20-year-old is in the third year of a major in English Language and Literature. "I studied science in high school before I came to Beijing, but my parents believe girls should study arts or literature because they can't be competitive in the scientific field," Zhu explained. 

For women who survive birth, another fight awaits when they apply to university. Two thirds of China’s top universities still have policies that limit the proportion of women students, according to the Media Monitor for Women Network NGO. Women systematically must score higher than men in the annual National Collage Entrance examinations to gain admission and face unofficial but widespread gender quotas that favour their male peers and challenge government regulations. In August, the Education Ministry went as far as to say that the practices were in the "national interest."

"We shaved our heads in protest against the gender quotas; we were truly outraged," said Xiong Jing. "It's unacceptable and illegal. The Education Law is clear in forbidding discrimination on several grounds including gender, and the Education Ministry is allowing this to happen," said Xiong. About 20 people, including some sympathetic men, joined the action around the country.  Statistics show that women are increasingly doing better than men in the gaokao, the gruelling college entrance examination, to occupy more and more places at universities around the country.

Once the fight for a college place is over, more gendered discrimination awaits as women look for a job. "I applied to work as a web-designer with an advertising company and they called me back to say that they 'were not considering women' for this position. I asked why, because this criteria wasn't even mentioned in the ad, and they told me I'd be welcome to apply as a receptionist or a PR person," recalled Li Peng, of her first job market experience. The 26-year-old decided to look for a job with international firms in China, she said while visiting a job fair a job fair for foreigners held in Beijing in May 2013. "I think this is more of a Chinese principle [not hiring females to perform certain jobs], because women are seen as caretakers and household managers, not career-oriented subjects," said Li, who was advised by her parents not to sue the hiring company for fear of hindering her job hunt permanently.

A group of female students facing discriminatory barriers to the job market reported over 40 large enterprises in four provinces for recruitment gendered job ads. The eight women mailed letters to local governments in Guangzhou, Beijing, Yunnan, Nanjing, and Henan within the country and Social Council, Trade and Industry Bureau , on the same day on December 26, 2013.

A group of female students facing discriminatory barriers to the job market reported over 40 large enterprises in four provinces for recruitment gendered job ads. The eight women mailed letters to local governments in Guangzhou, Beijing, Yunnan, Nanjing, and Henan within the country and Social Council, Trade and Industry Bureau , on the same day on December 26, 2013.

Other female applicants at the job fair complained of job advertisements that require a long list of desired qualities, including a specific height and weight.  China's state television reported in October 2013 that inequality for women in the workplace is at an all-time high. A study on gender discrimination in job ads has found that 10 percent state a gender preference, despite strict regulations outlawing this. The central government imposes fines from US$1,600 to US$4,800 against employers discriminating against applicants’ nationality, race, gender and religion but discrimination persists.

One in four women has been denied a job due to their gender, according to data by the Center for Women's Law and Legal Service of Peking University released in 2009. A study by two researchers from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, states that the taller a woman is, with every additional centimetre in height corresponding to a 2.2. percent increase in salary. 

"Women with higher degrees tend to be stereotyped. Employers consider them less employable than men because they believe women will drop out of the workforce to attend other priorities, namely getting married and having children," said Zhang Jian, who has been teaching women’s studies and equality at China's Women University in Beijing since the mid 1990’s. The professor says education is key to change a mindset that confines women to the household and to counter the stereotypical images promoted by the media. "Education is crucial, from primary school all the way to college, for women and men," explained Zhang, adding that education makes women more independent, competitive and self-reliant. 

Women who make it through the recruitment process often need to negotiate hard to get a fair salary. "Women are traditionally paid less to perform the same job as me. That is one of the reasons we hold sessions on how to negotiate assertively for a higher salary," explained 34-year-old Carol Rafferty from the local chapter of the Lean In group, an association focused on female empowerment. "In a male-dominated business sphere is more difficult for women to progress in their careers and assume leadership positions," the lawyer remarked. For every five Chinese men who rise to a senior position in the workplace, only one woman achieves the same level of advancement, a study by the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society published in 2013 confirmed.

Women in cities earned only 67 percent as much as men and 56 percent as much in rural areas, a 2010 survey by the state-run All Women's China Federation found. Statistics from the United Nations in 2012 also confirmed that women lagged behind men in labour-force participation and education level in China. 

Outside the professional realm, women's overall situation has not improved either. Domestic violence is rampant, with a quarter of Chinese women having admitted experiencing abuse, assault, restriction of personal freedom, economic control, and/or forced sex during marriage, as per a government survey on the social status of women in China that was released in 2011. Women's federations in China receive about 50,000 domestic violence cases each year, said Tan Lin, an official with the All China Women's Federation said at a seminar jointly held by China and Australia in November 2013. Tan described domestic violence as a cancer of social development.

Women are more at risk of rape from a partner than a stranger, stated the Third National Survey of Women's Social Status in China conducted in 2010 by the National Bureau of Statistics and the All China Women's Federation. Over 50 percent of Chinese men admitted having had physically or sexually abused their partners in the past in a World Health Organization multi-country study conducted in partnership with Tianjin Normal University. Analysts have warned that these figures are likely to understate the problem due to the common underreporting of domestic violence due to traditional norms that suggest domestic violence is a private affair and acceptable behaviour.

Despite China's ongoing sexual revolution, women are also the weakest link in sexual relationships. Abortion is widespread and reports tell of thousands of women who undergo surgery to rebuild their hymens before they get married. In 2010, the director of gynaecology at Beijing Wuzhou Women's Hospital, Zhou Hong, told the Washington Post that more and more women are turning to a surgery called "hymen restoration" after lying to their fiancés about their sex lives. Zhou is one of the Chinese doctors performing the procedure. "The ideal of marrying a virgin still prevails in China; only about 70 percent of the population has admitted to having pre-marital sex," noted famed sociologist and sexologist Lin Yinhe. "For men, the more sex the merrier; but sex and sexual pleasure are still seen as a bad thing for women. Men are praised for keeping several women and mistresses, while women are slutty if they have the same approach towards sex," said Lin, adding that female orgasm is still a taboo in females magazines and conversation in social circles.

Chinese legislation flatly fails in protecting female rights. A good example of such rules is a revised marriage law approved in 2011 that has made matrimony a bad deal and divorce even more of a gruelling battle for women, whether they are or not financially independent (See Leftover and left behind for details). Almost invisible representation of women higher up the echelons of real power (See A boy's club), makes it even more difficult for them to strive for gender equality and protection of their rights. 

1995-09-02-Great-Wall-of-Feminism-3rd-world-750.jpg

A combined effect of mass media and state-controlled media makes matters worse, by portraying a limited set of female stereotypes in the media. Chinese women are often featured as naive and weak, fetishised as sexually desirable or exposed as evil and manipulative. Some of China's most famous and powerful women left terrible legacies, deepening the bias against women in politics. Mao's wife Jiang Qing was imprisoned for her participation and incitement of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The last powerful woman of imperial times, the Empress Dowager Cixi who died in 1908, is either seen as a weak and manipulated leader or by a lens that focusses on her corrupt and despotic ways, with both being responsible for throwing China into anarchy and a civil war. In her latest book Empress Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China, celebrated author Jung Chang, who wrote the acclaimed memoir Wild Swans, argued that the Chinese ruler was neither tyrannical, nor incompetent, but more of a protofeminist visionary who managed to struggle against a retrograde and misogynistic male elite that constituted the imperial bureaucracy, "bringing medieval China into the modern age."

But China entered the modern age without setting itself free from Confucian ideology. "Confucianism valued men and despised women," said Lin Yinhe. "One of the most famous Confucian dictums stated that women should follow the 'three obediences and the four virtues,' which required women to obey their fathers before marriage, their husbands in marriage, and their sons in widowhood. Women were to maintain morality and practice proper speech, modest manners and diligent work. This ideology has permeated Chinese culture for over 2000 years," the expert said.

The list of ways that women are discriminated against in China is long, analysts have warned. "It is really systemic discrimination ranging from the sex ratio to the marriage law and the job market. There is a misogyny and sexism throughout Chinese society that starts from before birth, with the fact that parents prefer boys to girls, that's why there is such widespread abortion of female foetuses, and it is extremely broad ranging," concluded US doctoral student at Tsinghua University Leta Hong Fincher, who is working on a book on 'leftover women' (see Leftover and left behind). 

The author notes that media reports tend to trumpet China's achievements backed up by statistics that overlook the real situation of Chinese women and conflict significantly with other studies that show Chinese women have actually been losing ground in the labor force, politics and society in the post-socialist era. 

The proportion of women in senior management in China climbed to 51 percent this year, up from 25 percent in 2012 and outpacing the global average of 21 percent, according to a study published by the Beijing arm of accounting firm Grant Thornton. In a survey of 200 businesses in China, 94 percent of them employed women in senior roles, the study added. In the past few years, the Hurun Report has shown annually that more Chinese women are joining the ranks of the world's wealthiest people.  

"China is a vast country and there are successful business women who have become multimillionaires and have certainly achieved success. But the problem is when you look at the status of women overall and find that these extremely successful women are really the exception. There tends to be a lot of media reporting about these few women who are really successful and not enough emphasis on the problem faced by the vast majority of women, and that goes for urban, educated women too, who are losing a lot of the game that they have achieved recently and that also goes for rural women, who have traditionally struggled a lot with poverty, tend to have very few land rights and whose income gap is also increasing," said Fincher.

The feminist word ushering in university hallways and the female quandaries moving and shaking NGOs in China’s biggest cities have little echo among the fields and hardship in the countryside. Experts and activists constantly recall that the relative liberalisation of Chinese women that has occurred in the cities has not occurred in rural areas, where many still believe that education is unnecessary for women. “China still has in the rural areas a huge sway of a patriarchal family norm,” explained Rebecca Karl, co-author of the book The birth of Chinese feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory . “Women continue to be very oppressed so even though some young women now are able to go out and earn a living or find work in the city, the expectation is that they return home, get married and take care of their families,” said Karl.

The situation for women overall, both urban and rural, is worsening as compared to men. So, what you see is a quite significant increase in gender inequality. If you just look at absolute numbers, the poverty levels for all Chinese are decreasing, so the lives of both men and women are likely to have improved, but what is increasing is the gender inequality between women and men," Fincher remarked.

 

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Leftover and left behind


Chinese women are out of the game

Leftover and left behind


Chinese women are out of the game

"I quit a promising career in management to get married at 26. Twelve years later, I saw myself forced to brave the job market at 38, with a child to raise, amidst a battle for divorce and securing  a marital allowance that could help me keep both of us," said Yuan Yuan, who left her husband when she found out that he had been keeping mistresses for years. Although Yuan's family contributed heavily to help the young couple purchase a home in Beijing, and while she put her time, effort and more money into making it a home, the wife's name was not included in the house deed. "Looking back, although I loved my husband, I think I rushed into marriage; but 26 is considered the right time for tying the knot and my parents kept asking for a grandchild," said Yuan. Now in her late 30s, Yuan is positive about her future. Putting her knowledge of languages to good use, Yuan is currently working as an assistant manager at a multinational firm. "My divorce was not that bad compared to other cases in which women have no schooling or ended up as victims of domestic violence," she said.

real estate boom.jpg

A researcher on gender and wealth equality in China, Leta Hong Fincher argues that a combination of economic restructuring and state-controlled media have actually added pressure on women to settle down in the home.  

"One of the focuses of my research and book focus of my book is the state media campaign about so-called leftover women - who are defined as urban educated women who are in their late 20's - that has been churned out very aggressively since 2007. Because the propaganda department has a monopoly on information and the media is still very tightly controlled, this message is really getting through to a lot of young women and is having a very damaging effect on urban, educated women in their late 20's specifically," said the PhD in sociology. 

One of the consequences of this campaign on leftover women is that it stigmatizes urban, educated and single women over the age of 27. The pressure from the media builds up social pressure from parents, colleagues and friends, with a lot of young women abandoning their efforts to pursue higher education to focus instead on getting married before they become “too old” to find a husband. Many end up rushing into marriage without considering their economic interests first. In China, parents usually buy homes for their sons, who are usually under pressure to provide real estate upon marriage.

"China's real estate boom in the past decade, with skyrocketing house prices makes it very difficult today for a young couple getting married to buy a home. So often young women and men buy a home even before they get married. But the vast majority of homes in China today are still registered under the man's name. And yet I found that in most cases, the woman uses her finances for the purchase of the home, so she will transfer her life savings over to the man to buy a home, which is in the man's name only. Women end up without formal ownership of this very valuable asset," Fincher explained. 

To make matters worse, China's supreme court amended the marriage law in 2011 stating that property purchased by a couple belongs to the person whose name is on the deed. "This means that all these women who are married and contributed heavily to purchasing these very expensive homes, that are by far the family's most valuable asset, are effectively forfeiting ownership of that asset," the author said.

"According to Horizon China, women and their families now contribute to their partner’s home purchases in 70% of cases, only 30% of married women add their name to the property's title deed. Often a couple’s finances are arranged so that the husband can take all the pride of owning the home, even if, in reality, his wife is jointly supporting the household," the Economist reported in The Price of Men: are house prices in China hurting women more than men?

"According to Horizon China, women and their families now contribute to their partner’s home purchases in 70% of cases, only 30% of married women add their name to the property's title deed. Often a couple’s finances are arranged so that the husband can take all the pride of owning the home, even if, in reality, his wife is jointly supporting the household," the Economist reported in The Price of Men: are house prices in China hurting women more than men?

Fincher's book points out that the real estate boom, combined with deeply entrenched patriarchal values, has created an unprecedented gender wealth gap, leaving women largely shut out of what she calls the biggest accumulation of residential real estate wealth in history. After the end of 2012, residential real estate in China was worth over US$ 28 trillion.

"That creation of tremendous gender inequality and wealth has all sorts of consequences. If women get divorced they tend to lose all that wealth but even if they don't divorce, this inequality in wealth  and disadvantaged position affects and decreases her bargaining power within the marriage. This can lead to all sorts of other abuses, namely, rampant domestic violence." Fincher talks of an epidemic of spousal abuse. Official statistics state that one quarter of women have experienced domestic violence, but after having interviewed dozens of women Fincher claims her research shows this figure underestimates the severity of the problem. Exact figures are difficult to get as many women keep silent about being victims of domestic violence.

Women are quickly losing ground but optimistic media reports and public discourse seem poised to highlight the achievements of the few to the detriment of the overall of the female situation in the post-socialist era. 

In an article entitled China's entrenched gender gap, Fincher described women that are not only being labelled as leftover, they are being left behind. A 2010 census that put the percentage of working-age women in the work force at 74% is decried as not reliable enough, even though it put China alongside developed countries like Sweden (87,5%) and the US (75%). 

Nearly 57 percent of female college graduates say they have fewer employment opportunities than their male counterparts, indicates the recently released Survey Report on the Employment or Self-employment Status of Female College Graduates. The findings were compiled by the Department of Women's Development under the All China Women's Federation.

Nearly 57 percent of female college graduates say they have fewer employment opportunities than their male counterparts, indicates the recently released Survey Report on the Employment or Self-employment Status of Female College Graduates. The findings were compiled by the Department of Women's Development under the All China Women's Federation.

China's figures in this census were boosted by including women working in the countryside, since nearly half of the population in China is still rural. But other studies show that the situation for urban women has worsened. China’s urban employment rate for working-age women fell to a new low of 60.8 percent in 2010, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier, according to census figures. The 2010 rate was 20.3 percentage points lower than that of men.

"This troubling trend matters because the effort to move people from the countryside to cities is a top policy priority of China’s new leaders — one that they see as crucial to boosting economic growth.

China’s urbanisation rate is set to rise to 53.37 percent this year, and Chinese state media say that 60 percent of China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion will likely be urban dwellers by 2020. Yet the presumed economic benefits of urbanisation cannot be realised if the talents of half the country’s population — women — are largely squandered in the process.

The decline in urban women’s labor participation looks even worse if you go further back, to the end of the 1970s, when studies showed that over 90 percent of working-age women in cities were employed.

Historians agree that tens of millions of employees at state-owned enterprises were laid-off in the 1990s as part of a new economic model for the national economy. Women were disproportionately fired over men. Many of the women were later rehired at much lower rates than men who were fired.

"About 68 percent of women were laid-off and sent to early retirement in the late 1980s and 1990s," estimated women's studies experts Wang Zheng. "With the implementation of a market economy, managers were given the power to assign jobs, step up efficiency and reduce labor costs. Women were simply not seen as productive and lost the jobs that had been created for them during Mao's planned economy," said Wang. 

Co-author of the book The Birth of Chinese feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory Rebecca Karl agrees that the logic of development that came with reform and opening up deteriorated the role of working women. "Under a capitalistic logic of development focused on productivity, reproduction is a drag on production and therefore women become expendable. The shift in economic logic over the 1980s and particularly after 1989 and through the 1990s, really was a death blow to any broad social awareness or move towards gender equality. Except a small number of women who benefited from these changes, the vast majority have not and certainly the public discourse on women in China is not improving in that direction," Karl said.

Karl's co-authored book focuses on and brings to the spotlight the image of He-Yin Zhen, a Chinese woman who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century (See Famous Feminists gallery for details) and who published numerous essays on female labor and transforming economic systems. According to Karl, He-Yin Zhen's argument that there is no liberation of women without a fundamental restructuring of economic systems in which women's labor is not devalued compared to men's , resonates hugely today, and is an enormous issue in China as well as in countries across the globe, from Vietnam, to the US, Mexico and somehow everywhere.

"He-Yin Zhen's analysis of the ways in which global capitalism does not get rid of pre-existing social forms but instead of doing away with traditional family principles, uses those forms for its own purposes, is still absolutely true today," noted Karl. "Migrant labor in China functions according to a logic that takes advantage of women being somehow embedded in the home and uses this as a mode of capital accumulation. Women can always be spit back into rural areas once their labor capacity has been used up, they don't need to be sustained in urban areas and they can be expelled since their families will take them back. Her analysis in the ways the growth of capitalist preys upon and uses traditional gender oppression in order to advance its own purposes,  is relevant today," she said.

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A boys' club


'His'Chinese Dream; She stays at home

A boys' club


'His'Chinese Dream; She stays at home

"Men belong in public, women belong at home,"

Chinese Proverb (nanzhuwai, nanzhunei).

“There is a rule stating that one in every three class-monitors at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) must be male,” said 20-year-old Zhu Hua. “I don’t understand the logic behind this rule. We ended up with eight male class monitors in eight classes,” noted the student. 

The logic that makes it harder for Zhu and her female classmates to become class monitors, is the same that makes it more difficult for women to climb China's corporate ladder. It is also the same patriarchal, at most times illegal, reasoning behind a nation ruled by men that often want women to stay out of their power game.

Media reports confirm that Chinese men, traditionally encouraged and praised for being manly, feel threatened by female counterparts who excel in fields traditionally dominated by men. On the other hand, instructing women to get married and keeping them at home to take care of the household and the kids, would solve several of the Chinese government's major problems. One of these issues is the unbalanced sex ratio of 108 males to every 100 females and a rising number of 'leftover women' that is making it even harder for men to find wives. Another of the Communist Party's predicaments is the pressure of an ageing population that cripples production and consumption, which can be eased by encouraging child birth. The recent relaxation of the controversial one-child policy, which has existed for 33 years, was a first step to combat an ageing population.

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Chinese president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, applauds during the 11th National Women's Congress of China which opened at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 28, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Chinese president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, applauds during the 11th National Women's Congress of China which opened at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 28, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

President Xi Jinping has espoused his notion of a “Chinese Dream” ever since he stepped into power in October 2012, a term that went viral after his speech at the end of the Chinese legislative meetings known as the Two Sessions in March 2013. This dream emphasises the improvement the material lives of the citizens of the PRC and "rejuvenating the Chinese nation." But in Xi’s reformist dream, while men should man up, women should focus on taking care of the household and the family, which only goes to show how China’s leader is using traditional patriarchal ideas to help reinforce the autocratic power of a male-dominated state.

In January 2013, Xi made a speech during his “Southern Tour” noting that no man in China had had the strength to contest the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party. “Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist,” were Xi’s exact words. Current affairs commentator Chang Ping wrote about the President’s lamentation reflected the government’s stance over “a seldom-discussed issue in Chinese politics - gender equality.” Chang noted: “Patriarchy has made a comeback in Chinese society and is helping today to strengthen authoritarian rule.”

Women are also expected to make new achievements and contributions to promote harmony in families and society by carrying forward the fine traditions of respecting the elderly, loving the young, being frugal and properly bringing up children.
— Wang Qishan, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, at the 11th National Women's Congress of China in Beijing. Oct. 28, 2013

Reports of plans to establish all-boys schools and the growing popularity of “boys' classes” have come in response to the concept of a crisis of masculinity in China. Lu Qisheng, principal of the Shanghai No.8 high school told China's state news agency in 2012 that “the establishment of a boys' school would help to improve boys' academic performance, as many of them do not perform as well as their female peers.

Several experts support the idea that the physically and emotionally weak image of Chinese boys shows an erosion of masculinity. Fathers have also been encouraged to get more involved in their children's kindergarten education to ensure a "manly education.” “We tend to describe it as the feminization of men or lack of manliness,” Li Wendao, co-author of a book entitled “Save the Boys”, told the media.

All male Chinese leaders Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, Zhang Gaoli attend the 11th National Women's Congress of China which opened at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 28, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

All male Chinese leaders Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, Zhang Gaoli attend the 11th National Women's Congress of China which opened at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 28, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

In the meantime, alongside campaigns warning young women about becoming a shengnu, the man at the helm of the nation preached about women’s responsibility to stay at home. Just two months ago, China's President Xi Jinping delivered a speech stating that women should take responsibility for the family as caretakers of the children and the elderly,” noted Lin Lixia, a lawyer and secretary general of the NGO Women Watch China, referring to the president’s speech at the 11th National Women's Congress of China in Beijing in October 28.Only very few voices criticised these remarks. It is to be expected that state-affiliated organisations such as the ACWF will actin line with Xi's speech and propagate his message,” said Lin. 

The fact that Xi’s speech might have been written by women elevates the lack of consciousness to a more insidious level. “My concern is that women, not Xi Jinping, wrote that speech. This reflects a terrible regression on the part of the ACWF leadership,” said Wang Zheng, a professor of history and women's studies at the University of Michigan. Disillusioned, she reminded that the federation traditionally sets the leadership's agenda on women. 

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Experts have no doubt that public discourse on women is at an all-time low.

"State feminism was once supported by the government; gender equality was part of the official narrative, everybody knew that women were equal and could do the same jobs as men. Women's integration into the workforce was in line with the country's productive needs. In Mao's era, nobody wanted to be a housewife; women had to be active in the public sphere," explained Wang Zheng.

Sociology doctorate Leta Hong Fincher agreed that, despite a measure of progress in affirming women's rights, the Maoist state was not successful in doing away with the patriarchal views of the social role reserved for women in China: "Mao declared his commitment to gender equality through his famous saying that “women hold up half the sky.” But the state-imposed equal employment of women and men failed to transform underlying gender relations. Behind the public celebration of gender equality in the Communist workplace, women continued to shoulder the heavy burdens of childcare, housework and cooking at home."

While post-Mao feminists have been marginalised, men have cemented their position. "Instead of talking about gender equality, men can openly brag about their misogyny and chauvinism and they will encounter no resistance," Wang warned. 

A culture that emphasises guanxi - managing an intricate web of personal and professional connections -and a male-dominated political and business culture infamous for heavy drinking and keeping mistresses, are just some of the reasons that push women out from the higher ranks of politics, as well as stop them from climbing the corporate ladder.

"Men are simply perceived as more intelligent and politically capable than women," said Zhu Hong, who works under the ACWF. A Xinhua report also underlined that "the social costs of entering politics in China are higher for women than for men," citing the demands of family and of social standing.

Aside from the retrograde view of stereotypes undermining women's advancement in politics, the bigger picture is more worrying. Underrepresented and vulnerable to political crackdowns for speaking up against the government and its policies, feminists can easily be placed alongside dissident voices that are being pushed aside for not wanting to take part in Xi’s reformist dream. Until recently, human rights activists and intellectuals kept the leadership busy but in 2013, a crackdown on social activists and the so-called “rumour mongers” online was launched as part of a campaign to silence questioning voices. Online and off, feminists remain vigilant but they will not stop claiming for their rights and to have their voices heard until they enter the boys' club running the country.

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Far-off feminism


Revolutionaries are long gone

 

Far-off feminism


Revolutionaries are long gone

 

Poster for the 1959-movie Song of Youth, which marked the 10th anniversary of China's Communist Party

Poster for the 1959-movie Song of Youth, which marked the 10th anniversary of China's Communist Party

The main predicament hindering the emergence of a feminist movement in China is that there are neither enough feminists nor enough support for them, either on an official or civil level. The feminist community agrees that change towards gender equality will be slow and arduous.

Scholars and analysts have a more pessimistic stance, noting that activism is constantly being undermined by the political status quo. Grassroots feminists and students are more optimistic; as they see some progress taking place thanks to their actions. They do agree though that, regardless the direction the feminist compass turns in, it will have to do so pointing out a unique course born in China. 

“Revolutionaries are long gone. China has changed,” professor Wang noted. Between the bureaucrats who hold leadership positions because they are with the Communist Party, and a younger generation who lacks a sense of collective struggle, Wang has no hopes of seeing women reclaiming their lost rights in the near future. “Most women in power positions, namely with the ACWF, no longer belong to the generation of women fighting for social justice and equality, they’re not leaders because they’re activists; they’re bureaucrats,” said the teacher, admitting that the few good feminists with the ACWF can’t pull strings from within an association which has lost its credibility.

“Meantime, young women have been profoundly affected by individualism and capitalist consumerism; they have no sense of collective goals or struggle,” explained the historian, saying that individualism is at its highest time. “Many of them believe it’s easier to climb the social ladder or to marry a rich man. Happiness is determined by the number of goods you can consume,” she added.

The Bald Girls, a group show by female artists Li Xinmo, Xiao Lu and Jiny Lan, has been described as "the first-ever feminist exhibition in China." The exhibition was held at the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2012.

The Bald Girls, a group show by female artists Li Xinmo, Xiao Lu and Jiny Lan, has been described as "the first-ever feminist exhibition in China." The exhibition was held at the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2012.

“A localised process [of feminism] must emerge,” said Zhang Zenglin, a student activist from China Women’s university, noting that the theories she is studying were first developed in Western countries. “Surely, China can learn from the West and its experience, but we can't translate and transfer those realities word for word. China doesn't share the same political system, social status or economic level. I think Chinese feminism needs to find its own way,” concluded the student. 

After shaving her head to protest against domestic violence and equal access to university for female students, Xiong Jing is optimistic about the growth of feminism in China. “Some people call us radical because some of our activities are quite controversial. But I see that as a positive sign, asbefore, nobody talked about female issues,” said Xiong, who works for the Women Monitor for Media Network NGO.  

For better or worse, the feminist agenda is still taking place outside the official sphere of control, noted Xiong. “The political environment has become worse in the past year with more activists getting arrested. But women’s issues are not considered human rights’ issues and therefore are not so sensitive, so we actually have some room to demonstrate.”

However, the young feminist has no illusions about the pace of change when it comes to female rights in China. “We know we can’t change things overnight. Actions like occupying male toilets may seem like a small thing to do, but it is specific and might just be planting the seed of something that will grow larger." Xiong was referring to a campaign calling for more public facilities for women. In February 2012, Beijing students occupied male cubicles in facilities near Deshengmen to make sure that women waiting in line could use the facilities first. The initiator of the movement, a female college student in Beijing who alerted for the unfair ratio of male to female toilet stalls, has later received a formal response from the local government that banned her from traveling away from the capital and limited her ability to organise. 

"Despite the obstacles, more and more young people are joining our activities and this gives us good reason to believe that, despite the political environment, feminism can grow as a civil movement in China."

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China's second sex


China's second sex


Chinese men approached in the street to talk about feminism. Many believe a man can't be a feminist.

Chinese men approached in the street to talk about feminism. Many believe a man can't be a feminist.

“I’m a man, how can I be a feminist,” a 25-year-old laughed when approached on the street for a vox pop about feminism. He wasn’t the only Chinese man to be bewildered by the question. Some even said that they agreed with equal rights and opportunities for women, they just wouldn’t tell anyone they are feminists. “We should all be feminists, women and men,” said Zhu Zihua, the university student who participated in the “My Vagina Says” project and is still figuring out whether or not she is a feminist.

Chinese women had their feet unbound, but their hands remain tightened. China definitely needs more feminists, both female and male. China is in desperate need of ardent feminists with revolutionary spirit because gender is still prescribing what Chinese women should be rather than how they are, so unless there is a change of paradigm in China, little will change soon.

Gender inequality is, after all, about power and prejudice. The legacy of patriarchal society, of rules for men’s and women’s behaviours, desperately needs to evolve, since we’re no longer counting on men to hunt wild boar for dinner.
— Li Xinmo, feminist artist

For this shift to take place, China needs more female campaigners and more men who associate with the word feminist. It needs for its daughters and sons to be raised differently to become feminists. This will be the only way to do away with centuries of deeply ingrained patriarchy in a country where political power colludes with capital and perpetuates gender inequality. Both women and men need to understand that their silence indicates complicity with a state of things that supports a condition for women as China’s second sex. 

Chinese women need to unlearn what they have been taught while growing up and is making them vulnerable in the face of gender expectations. They have to demand respect because they deserve it, at home, at the office or in the street, and they must stop being apologetic for their femininity. They have to educate their daughters with a new mindset, free of prejudice and aware of their full potential to strive for a better condition and social role in contemporary China. They should also unite, as that is the only way that they will be able to make waves in China and generate an evolution that will shake the hallways of Chinese leadership. 

As for men, they need to understand that gender issues are also men’s issues and ultimately leadership issues. The same system that produces men who abuse women also produces men who abuse men, so  men in powerful positions who fail to protect both genders should be held accountable. Chinese men need to start berating, and stop praising, other men that flaunt misogyny with pride. Homophobic remarks and other derogatory behaviour towards women are offensive to every man's mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and female friends.

If human and moral reasons aren't strong enough to persuade China to tear down centuries of patriarchy and misanthropy, then China should turn to the statistics and case studies that have long proven the efficiency of economic gains generated by gender equality. Gender equality should be given equal importance to the economic and political status of the country in the global context, as it will push the country's international profile as a role model of a truly balanced and developed society.